I certainly attempt to avoid hyperbole when it comes to my Cowboys writing, but evidently I engaged in some last week. Here was a paragraph from my overview of the San Diego game, #13 of the 2009 season:
If you want to go to the Playoffs. If you want to quiet the critics. If you have any plans of winning your division. If you don't want another season to crater. If you want your new stadium to appear difficult to play in. If you want opponents to take you serious....
Need to Win.
The truth is, I was only partly correct. They lost, of course, and despite that fact and the fact that they could very likely lose again in a day's time, they are still in this race. I was partly correct because any chance they had at a division title reduced dramatically, and now the most likely berth in the playoffs appears to be the #6 seed out of 6. But, I was incorrect if you consider the object of the game to play in the playoffs this year and ultimately do away with that playoff drought.
You see, my trusty partner on the air, Mr. Dan McDowell, bristles at my suggestion that this game is a "must win" game like I did against San Diego. If it is a must-win game, then how are the Cowboys still in this with 3 to play? Doesn't "must" suggest that losing is not an option? And, as Duane Thomas once said about the Super Bowl, "If it's the ultimate game, how come they're playing it again next year?"
So, where does that leave us?
|15||@ NO||@ WAS||SF||@ PIT|
|17||PHI||@ MIN||@ DAL||@ ARZ|
It leaves us with the Cowboys controlling their own playoff destiny for the time being. If they win their games, they are in. But, if they go 2-1 for the final 3, or, gulp, 1-2, they will need help. Remember, they lose a tie-breaker to the Giants (season sweep) and the Packers (head-to-head), so being even doesn't help them.
The opponent is a juggarnaut of epic proportions. The Saints have scored an insane 466 points in their 13 games (35.8 per game). To put this in perspective, the next several teams in scoring are Minnesota (389), Philadelphia (372), San Diego (362), and Indianapolis (359). That is right, the Saints have scored 77 more points or, 11 more touchdowns, than any team in football. And, their points for/point against differential is a crazy +192. Total domination.
National Football Post told us in August that the Saints do not have exceptional talent around the field:
New Orleans —
BLUE CHIP: QB, Brees; ILB, Vilma.
ALMOST BLUE: WR, Colston; WR, Moore.
These 2 teams have played a combined 26 games this year and have been favored in 25 of them. The Saints have never been an underdog in their 13 games, and the Cowboys have been favored by Vegas in 12 of their games (3 point dogs at Philadelphia). But, this week, the Cowboys will be heavy dogs for the first time in a real long time. In fact, I cannot recall this city seeming to accept defeat prior to the game in years. But, playing this team in this stadium is an extremely tall order.
ON OFFENSE: 895 yards of Total offense in 2 games and you lose them both? I would love to see a statistic on how many teams have done that this season. You would love to have more to show for your 900 yards, but we all know how the goal-line stand could possibly go down as the defining moment of the 2009 season.
As I look at the Cowboys offense, I continue to see some very impressive numbers that indicate this is, in fact, a good offense. It can be so much better, but overall, the tools are there to build something impressive. Trouble is, time is running out, and the Cowboys are starting to look like a team that has nice parts, but the sum total is less than what we had hoped.
I was trying to figure out what I don't like about this offense the other day, and I formed a premise then wondered if it held water. I don't think the Cowboys ever throw the ball down field anymore. For reasons I am not sure I grasp, I don't think Tony Romo throws the ball over the top like he did in the days of Terrell Owens and the 2007 Dallas Cowboys. Sure, Romo has plenty of 40+ yard passes, but is it from short plays that become long after the catch? Who do you think has more yards after the catch between Drew Brees and Romo? That would be Tony Romo.
But, "yards at the catch" measures passes length - and Romo rates #11 in the league, Brees is at #1. Brees throws the ball down the field. Romo doesn't seem to. So, I asked the boys at Football Outsiders this question: Does Romo throw the ball down the field like he once did?
Romo's percentage of deep passes has dropped this season but not by much.
2007: 20% 16+ yards, including 8% 26+ yards in the air
2008: 19% 16+ yards, including 7% 26+ yards in the air
2009: 16% 16+ yards, including 5% 26+ yards in the air
That's it? From the high-flying days of 2007 until now, His deep passes are down only 3% and his medium throws are down 4%? Theories are so much better when you don't have to prove it. But, I sure can't remember the Romo deep ball much in the last 2 months, can you?
1) - Sustain Your Drives, Hold Serve - Playing the Saints is very much like a tennis match. You are going to have a chance if you can get to the final-set tiebreaker. The trouble is, to get there, you must be able to keep up with the Saints. Sadly, this was impossible for Tom Brady and his band of weapons a few weeks back. It causes coaches to panic and go for it on 4th Down because they know that if they settle for 3, the Saints will get a working margin. If that happens, they unleash the blitz, and the score gets worse. You must sustain drives and roll clock with a power running posture. We know they can do it, but will they? Will they keep their heads? And, unlike last road game, will they have an offensive line that allows you do so?
2) - Composed Romo vs. The Superdome - Beware the blitz of the Saints, and beware the urge in the back of your head to try to keep up with Brees and his offense. Play within yourself and you have a chance. But, also be opportunistic. If you are unsure about one element of Romo's efficient 2009, it would be this: Is he pushing the ball down the field enough, or is he being too careful with the ball? I hate to say it, because being too careful is better than not careful enough, but to be elite, your QB has to be willing to occasionally fit the ball in tight spaces. Also, let's not forget how loud and intimidating the Superdome can be. A truly college atmosphere in the pros, and you must stay composed and not get flustered when things go in the wrong direction. This is a great test for Romo.
3) - Protect the QB, Win the Line of Scrimmage - I know I harp about this on a weekly basis, but this team needs better, consistent efforts from the OL in December. They lose this time of year for many reasons, but if you asked me to boil it down to the main culprit, I would circle a OL that dissolves a bit as the year goes on. For the most part, they were reasonable against the Chargers, but on the goal-line stand, the game was lost because the OL did not give Marion Barber much to work with. It is imperative that this offensive line gets after the Saints DL and protects the flanks against the solid Saints edge pass rush, and when it is time to get a yard, they need to move the pile.
4) - Touchdowns, Not Field Goals - This fits right with the theme of not having a dependable kicker, right? They may need Nick Folk to make a kick, but I suspect if they call on him much, they won't have a great chance to win. The Cowboys have been in the Red Zone 39 times this season (which sounds impressive until you see New Orleans has been in there 63 times) and has scored 20 TDs. That means 19 times, they have settled. Settled for FGs or less. That won't cut it on Sunday. Must get 7 every time you drive down there and get a chance. Must convert into 7.
ON DEFENSE: I would love to dazzle you with all of the amazing stats about the New Orleans Saints. They are so far ahead of the curve on every offensive metric that it is nearly unfair. To me, it all comes back to your QB, and Brees is an amazing story from every angle. When he signed from San Diego, he was coming off a big shoulder injury, and the Saints were trying to bounce back from the crazy season of Katrina. Sean Payton took a job that nobody seemed to want, and Brees signed. Since then, they have gone on quite a tear of offensive genius that we can compare to the greatest offensive systems of all-time. We can debate whether you would rather have the 1998 Vikings, the 2001 Rams, or the 2007 Patroits offense rather than the Saints (why did none of those teams win the Super Bowl those years?), but we cannot dispute that the Saints put you in a very uncomfortable position when you play their offense - you must score 7 points everytime you get the ball, or you lose sight of them.
We saw the Patriots try some awfully exotic schemes a few Mondays ago, but Brees surgically dismantled them with his huge assortment of weapons. And, for the most part, it all comes out of Shotgun and most of it with the pass or runs from a pass formation. It is too 1-dimensional and too predictable, but it doesn't matter. They are that good at what they do.
So, if you are Wade Phillips, do you rush the QB with risky blitzes or drop into coverage? We know we cannot trust the Cowboys to get there with 4, so the only option is to flood the zones with defenders. Trouble there is that Brees is as accurate a passer as there is in football. No pass rush = no chance in my estimation. Your only chance is the unpredictable blitz packages. 1st and 10 corner blitzes are just crazy enough to have a chance. But, traditional situations are picked apart by Brees/Payton.
1) - Pass Rush - Remember the Cowboys pass rush? Well, it has betrayed them down the stretch. 1 sack against the Redskins. 1 sack at New York. 1 sack against the Chargers. 3 1-sack performances in your last 4 games? That is quite disappointing, and now the prospect of not having DeMarcus Ware at full strength does not help matters. I don't dispute this idea that Anthony Spencer is having a nice year, but the fact that Marcus Spears has no sacks since Atlanta, Jay Ratliff hasn't had a sack since Philadelphia, Keith Brooking has 1 sack since Seattle, and Bradie James has 1 sack all year (at Denver). The usual suspects are not getting there, and you can certainly imagine the implications of giving Brees all day.
2) - Take the Ball Away - Since the Eagles game, the Cowboys have played the Packers, Redskins, Raiders, Giants, and Chargers. In those 5 games, the Boys have multiple takeaways in just 1 game (Giants). This is a game where takeaways could be the one and only way to get the Cowboys a win. Big plays are the great equalizer, and for the Cowboys to have a chance, they must turn the ball over. Trouble is this: In his last 4 games, Brees has thrown 13 Touchdowns and 1 interception. Ouch.
3) - Newman and Jenkins must bounce Back - Sorry, but that was not good enough against San Diego. We can discuss who was worse in the game, but the fact is that Phil Rivers offered no respect to the corners of the Dallas Cowboys. And they showed unworthy of big respect. The Chargers picked on whoever they wanted with big days for Vincent Jackson and friends, especially on 3rd down. 3rd down is not exactly a tough spot for the Saints, but Jenkins and Newman (and Scandrick) must stay on top of Colsten, Moore, Henderson, and Meachem.
4) - Tackling must be true - Understand this: The Saints are going to get done what they normally get done. There will be big plays and huge yardage totals. I am not sure there is a recipe for an alternative. But, there will be moments where the game can change on a tackle or a miss. If the Cowboys blow tackles in the open field, the Saints take those for 50 yard Touchdowns. New Orleans has been the master of 3rd Down in this latest stretch, and if you can't tackle, you can't get off the field. And, if you can't do that, you can't win. Must wrap up and bring down.
SUMMARY: If there was one game on the schedule when it was released in April that I didn't consider a win as much of a possibility, it is this game. I didn't know the Saints would be 13-0, but I knew they would be very good, and would present a number of match-up issues with the Cowboys secondary. No pass rush, no secondary confidence, and what appears right now to be a Cowboys team that is so terrified of a collapse that they can not do anything but collapse. This team needs a confidence transplant, and for the life of me, I don't see how they get a win here. If they do get the unlikely win, it could change the direction of this franchise on a dime, but after these last 2 weeks, I would be a fool to trust them again. Not going to happen.
Saints 37, Cowboys 27
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